Bangladesh is a neighbor like no other. For most of it’s nearly 4,000km of boundary it is surrounded by Indian Territory. It has borders with five Indian states, the longest and most important of which is with Paschim Banga (West Bengal) followed by Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. The last, Tripura, in a sort of mirror image is almost totally enclosed within Bangladesh.
History is a huge imperative in making this region a single economic unit. After all Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Pakistan, was carved out of the United Province of Bengal. And while some historical burdens remain, the shared language, culture and unprecedented empathy for the liberation struggle of Bangladesh is the magnet that pulls together the two.
So the three-day visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Dhaka, along with the Chief Ministers from four north-East states, was long-overdue and much anticipated. It was, by and large, a success with ten agreements concluded. These cover the whole gamut of bilateral relations including trade, environment, the exchange of enclaves and adverse possessions and completion of the demarcation of the border, insurgencies, border management, road and rail connectivity, sale of power etc. Some, like the interim agreement for sharing of the waters of the Teesta and Feni rivers and access to Chittagong and Mongla ports for our Northeastern states, had to be left out at the last minute because of the sudden discord created by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to accompany the Prime Minister to Bangladesh. (Hopefully the process can be resumed after some linguistic tweaking to satisfy her even though the actual terms of the agreement cannot be altered significantly).
Bangladesh took the first step to bettering relations with India, with Sheikh Hasina closing down the training camps of India’s north east insurgencies and handing over its leaders who had taken refuge in Bangladesh. In July, she conferred her country’s highest civilian award to Indira Gandhi for her role in the liberation of Bangladesh. Hasina has also moved purposefully and with speed to recover the secular democracy of Bangladesh, lost after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib, successive military coups and the anti Indian policies pursued by the Khaleda Zia.
All the agreements are important but perhaps the most important in putting the past behind us may be the land boundary agreement which would complete the Indira-Mujib agreement of 1974. While it will take some time to complete the procedures, once the land issue is settled, it will promote agreement on the maritime border onto which the land border extends. With that completed, both countries can prospect seriously for oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal even jointly.
The Border management Protocol attached to the Border Agreement, and orders to the Border Security Force not to fire except in self defense will elicit more cooperation from the Bangladesh Rifles and make the border more peaceful. There is drug and cruel cattle smuggling, but most egregious is the human trafficking across this border with women transported to Pakistan and children to the Gulf States to serve as camel jockeys.
As important is the decision to liberalize trade with Bangladesh by dismantling 48 tariff lines on textile imports into India. This should go some way to meet a longstanding demand for India to rebalance the present 10 t0 1 ratio of bilateral trade of approximately $5 billion annually. This was much appreciated in Bangladesh, and its success could prod India to open itself to free trade for all its smaller South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) neighbours – without demanding reciprocal opening. This would be a grand gesture from a nation that comprises 85% of all SAARC trade. To get the full benefit of this process India must also promote cross-border trade with Bangladesh and all the other members of SAARC, first by rebuilding its woeful border infrastructure.
What could have been done better was the promotion of environmental diplomacy. The two Agreements on the environment on the Sundarbans and the Bengal Tiger are to be welcomed but they are too unambitious. As argued by Gateway House researcher Shloka Nath in an Op-Ed in the Mint, India and Bangladesh should put saving the Sundarbans at the heart of bilateral diplomacy. This would not only recognize the importance of the Sundarbans as a carbon sink but also as the source of livelihood for millions on both sides of the border, the locus of bio diversity and the home of the magnificent Bengal tiger and other unique fauna and flora. We must act before we lose the tiger and generate thousands of climate refugees. If India leads the way in saving the Sundarbans, cooperating on water and environment issues can become the template for relations with other South Asian neighbours.
A gap in the otherwise progressive visit was the last minute decision by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to repudiate the Interim Agreement for the sharing of the waters of the Teesta river and to drop out of the visit altogether. It is undeniable that the building of the Farrakka barrage by India in 1975 and the prolonged wrangling over the sharing of the Ganga waters soured what should have been a warm cooperative relationship in the context of the role played by India in the liberation of Bangladesh. It took more than twenty years to negotiate the Ganga Waters Treaty. Therefore arriving at an interim agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Teesta and the Feni rivers in an implicit exchange for the use of the Chittagong and Mongla ports for trade with and by our Northeastern States should have been the crowning achievement of Manmohan Singh’s visit.
Unfortunately Banerjee’s continuing rivalry with the state’s Communist Party who she ousted in recent elections, and also local political concerns in North Bengal, obscured the larger national interest in building a relationship of trust with Bangladesh. It would have also enabled the further unlocking of the economies of our North-eastern states, allowing for a robust trade flow of trade between the seven sister states and adjoining Bangladesh.
The benefits of transforming India Bangladesh relations into a US-Canada type relationship are obvious and could have a demonstration effect on our other neighbours. They must also be obvious to the leadership and people of Paschimbanga. If reports quoting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as implying that he did not think inadequate consultation on the Teesta waters agreement was the reason for the Bengal chief minister’s tantrum then perhaps the agreement can be achieved soon. And perhaps the Chief Minister of Paschimbanga could travel herself to Dhaka and sign the agreement on behalf of India.
Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York
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